Here’s what we know: students learn best when they have choice, a “real-life” mission, and time to develop their own questions and answers.
And that method of learning is at the heart of project-based learning (PBL). Research confirms that PBL is super effective. So why aren’t more of us trying it in our classrooms? Why is so much of learning still teacher-led? Below, we explore some of the biggest PBL roadblocks.
(Psst … if you’re new to PBL, here’s a great link explaining what it is and how to get started.)
1. How will I find time for that?
Whenever we are presented with something to try, especially when it comes in the form of a dreaded acronym, we stop and wonder, “How much time and energy is this going to take?” and “Is it worth it?”
While these concerns are valid, PBL actually solves the problem of time. In the past, we had to make “project workdays” and “learning days,” among other scheduling obligations like tests, field trips, and study days. But what if they were all intertwined, and PBL wasn’t a certain day but rather an ongoing initiative?
While students do need time to work with PBL partners and develop ideas and plans, PBL could and should be something that occurs alongside more traditional learning. In addition, students take responsibility for making plans, not you. One of the key skills students should take away is the ability to plan a project and follow through with those plans while assessing their own progress along the way.
2. How will students be graded and what if test scores go down?
Sometimes PBL is associated with the switch to mastery-based grading. But, if it’s too mind-boggling to switch grading styles while initiating your first PBL, try separating the two.
Traditional grading during a PBL may mean using a similar rubric to what you’d use for a student meeting or a group presentation. Students can share their progress on smaller project goals along the way.
From there, you’ll want to make sure you have institutional support.
Andrew Wheatley is the Director of Secondary Curriculum for Lakota Local Schools near Cincinnati, and he has designed and led many PBL projects both as a teacher and leader. He says one of the most important factors in PBL success is “permission”.
“Teachers have to feel like admins are okay with it: ‘If I screw this up, will it be okay?’ ‘If test scores go down, will it be okay?’ ‘If parents complain, will it be okay?'” He explains that teachers have to feel supported in each of these concerns, in addition to needing time and collaboration. He also said the focus shouldn’t be on testing but rather if kids are learning and demonstrating the material in different ways.
3. What will my kids do with all that “unstructured” time?
If you’ve got a challenging group of kids, the idea of assigning an ongoing project in which students have direction over almost every aspect can be daunting. But what if the kids you think may struggle the most are also the kids who end up being best at it?
Often struggling learners miss out on investment in the learning process, and you may find them asking “why do we need to know this?” PBL usually has an intrinsic answer, as they have the choice to problem solve something that matters to them within the structure of your curriculum.
Frequent and small check-ins work and help with the structure. You contacted that community stakeholder to get the process started? Check. You wrote a professional follow-up email? Check. These successes result in proud students who want to finish the project.
4. Am I ready to switch my mindset and teaching philosophy?
When we entered our first year of teaching, we may have done so with our teaching philosophy in hand (or at least in a college notebook somewhere) ready to take on education with our own style. Then what happened? We went into survival mode, trying to fill the space of 180 days with content that mattered, or just some content to make sure we seemed like we knew what we were doing.
But now it’s time to get back to that philosophy. PBL may be the breath of fresh air that reminds us of why we started teaching. It can be fascinating to witness a student as young as a kindergarten presenting real solutions to a community problem.
Wheatley says it can take time to figure out your teaching philosophy and to return to a personalized learning mindset. “If we go back to the standards and level of depth teachers [may realize] they are giving a ton of time to things they don’t need to be.” Maybe we do have the time, energy, and heart to try PBL after all.
We’d love to hear—what are the PBL roadblocks you see? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.